The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) is one federal program that seems to be doing everything right. Each day, the FFVP brings a wide variety of fresh produce to low-income kids for their school snack, and it’s been proven to increase children’s acceptance of fruits and vegetables, encourage them to make healthier choices in the cafeteria, and even lower their BMI scores – all for a mere $50 to $75 per child.
But as I told Civil Eats readers last spring, the FFVP has been under constant threat by lobbyists for fruit and vegetable processors and canners who’ve tried to shoehorn their clients’ frozen, dried and canned produce into the program. (“Is the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program About to Get Sliced and Diced?“) If they succeed, the FFVP could theoretically include products like this brightly colored 100 percent fruit ice – or even items in which fruits and vegetables are only one component, like fruit yogurt or trail mix.
But if the FFVP is no longer all about “fresh,” would it make a meaningful difference to students? A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) pilot program tried to answer that question and the results are now in.
The USDA opened the pilot to any states interested in including canned, frozen and dried produce in the FFVP, but only four states (Alaska, Delaware, Kansas and Maine) opted to join. Even within these states, the idea of shifting away from fresh produce seemed to have little appeal: just 58 schools from across all four states chose to participate, and the majority of those schools were very small, rural schools located in Alaska where procuring fresh produce can be a challenge.
The non-fresh produce most typically offered by these schools during the pilot were dried cranberries, raisins and trail mix, along with canned mandarin oranges and applesauce. Less than one percent included frozen fruits or canned vegetables and no schools offered frozen or dried vegetables. Comparing data from the fall of 2014 (when only fresh produce was offered) to the spring of 2015 (when canned, dried and frozen products were allowed), the USDA found that during the pilot period:
- There was a substantial decrease in students’ consumption of fresh fruit.
- Fewer vegetables were served overall because fresh vegetables were frequently replaced by dried and canned fruit.
- The calorie content of the FFVP snack increased by an average of 20 calories per day due to the higher sugar content of dried and canned fruit.
- Students reported preferring fresh fruits and vegetable compared to the non-fresh forms. Specifically, they said they preferred raw vegetables to cooked, fresh oranges over canned mandarins, fresh pears over canned pears, and fresh apples over applesauce or dried apples. The least liked fruits were all non-fresh forms of fruit.
- The shift even affected the produce served at school lunch, with participating schools serving more canned fruit at lunch and less fresh fruit.
Despite this hard evidence to the contrary, school food service directors and principals at pilot schools said they felt the inclusion of non-fresh forms of produce had improved snack variety, quality and quantity. But two-thirds of the parents at these schools said they wanted the FFVP to continue to serve only fresh produce. And, interestingly, even among the 58 schools in the program, 41 percent still continued to offer only fresh fruits and vegetables, indicating there may be little interest overall in changing the status quo.
The USDA’s findings offer solid support for keeping the FFVP fresh-only, but that doesn’t mean the processed produce industry will give up the fight. In the last Congressional session, industry lobbying succeeded in getting language into the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s draft Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) bill that would have allowed all FFVP schools to serve “all forms” of produce, expressly stating that the program is “no longer limited to only fresh fruits and vegetables.”
It remains to be seen whether this “all forms” language will actually make it into the CNR, when and if the current Congress decides to focus on child nutrition programs.
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